Press Clippings | The Making of Final Fantasy VII
May 2003 edition of Edge magazine's regular feature "The Making Of...", spotlighting Final Fantasy VII. Interviewed for this article were Yoshinori Kitase and Tetsuya Nomura.
Transcription by Tuulisti.
3.28m sales in Japan, 2.92m in the US and 1.77m in Europe. Three CD. Over two years' development. Over 100 team members. Nine out of ten. Adults in tears. But Final Fantasy VII represents much more than cold record-breaking statistics. Here was the catalyst for the worldwide RPG revolution…
"This was undoubtedly the game that changed everything." Yoshinori Kitase, the director the most important RPG ever, has cause for hyperbole. "We felt a wind of change inside the company during the development process. There was this incredible feeling I'll never forget: we were making a new thing… making history. Imagine." He pauses. Imagine.
At the time there were many doubters, but Kitase-san's instinct proved right; Final Fantasy VII eventually propelled the high-production RPG into one of the most popular videogame genres worldwide. The first demo of the title, creatively bundled on an extra disc with Square's first 32bit offering, Tobal No.1, stunned the world with its steam punk setting, achingly melancholic score and arresting visuals. And it bore evidence of a huge team working on a title with aspirations not yet though possible in the medium of videogames. "There was a huge number of people we had never worked with before. Up until that point Squaresoft's teams had only ever dealt with the traditional 2D medium. All of a sudden we had new people coming in working with software like Power Animator and SoftImage that we had never heard of before. From and industry point of view, it was unbelievable what we were trying to achieve. That is why we all had this strong feeling; this great enthusiasm."
As the software houses were jumping from the 16bit systems to 32bit hardware, Squaresoft made the headlines for choosing Sony over previous soul mate Nintendo. The story behind the split is yet to be explained and as the two companies only recently kissed and made up (with the departure of warring Hirosohi Yamauchi from Nintendo and Hironobu Sakaguchi from Squaresoft) we're are unlikely to anytime soon. Kitase-san is predictably diplomatic, "We had a big decision to make in terms of which hardware to use. Nintendo was not one step behind in terms of hardware. In fact, the N64 was quite attractive actually. But as our goal was to develop the next-generation RPG we came to the conclusion that only a high capacity mass storage media would facilitate what we wanted to achieve. This meant CD was the only option and so from that perspective, Playstation was the only choice."
Access All Areas
There was a great pressure on the team to maximise the benefits of the new medium. "At that time Sakaguchi-san (Square's founder) was the series' producer. Right from the time the decision to go with CD was made he set down a ground rule for the team saying, 'If the player becomes aware of the access times we have failed.' So we tried many tricks to circumvent the issue such as offering animation while the game was loading data, etc. The constant fear for us having worked with cartridges for so many years was that the player would feel bored while waiting for loads. However, only CD media was able to facilitate more than 40 minutes of FMV movies so we virtually had the decision made for us."
Graphically Square was trying things only hinted at in the first generation of 32bit titles. Using polygonal characters on CG backgrounds and interspersing the action with streaming FMV was a bold aesthetic decision. "We were keen that the distinction between the in-game graphics and the CG movie sequences was not overly pronounced: something we could not have done on the N64. The change of dimension into 3D was a massive one for the Square team. You could see the game with maps and angles that only 3D could offer and in terms of game characters, we were able to offer far greater, detailed animations, so they would look more real and more alive on screen. But it was a daunting task."
The change from Final Fantasy VI to Final Fantasy VII is as graphic a demonstration of the transition between 2D to 3D as one will see. Just how apprehensive was Kitase-san about this sea change? "It was during development that I realised the impact that 3D realistic CG visuals had on overseas players. In Japan, you have the manga culture with the traditional deformed style world design and characters that live through a story with very serious themes. Overseas, you don't have this. To be honest we were pretty confident that FFVII's characters and graphics would be accepted overseas and ironically I was much more anxious to see how Japanese users would respond."
Undoubtedly at the heart of any RPG's success is the plot. No matter how good your battle system or locations, without quality scripting there will be no incentive for the player to play. It is testament to FFVII's story that the game is widely regarded as the acme of the series and still frequently referenced today. While Final Fantasy games have traditionally always drawn upon a huge selection of myths and legends, the seventh game used them as a framework for loftier ethical aspirations and ecologically conscious evangelism. "Sakaguchi had a great vision of the force behind the universe. He wanted to explore the idea that planets and people share the same basic energy and so are, in some way, intrinsically linked. He developed this philosophy from drawing upon other cultures that stated when a planet disappears an invisible energy is released in to space. This energy goes to some place to give life again when certain conditions are met. The same energy drives people. So matter who or what this energy comes from, it will concentrate all together to give life to something or someone again."
These were ideas that the SquareSoft founder had long been toying with and it is unclear as to how much of the philosophy was pure fantastical fabrication and how much was his own dogma. One thing is certain, they posed difficulties for Kitase-san, "Sakaguchi's ideas were incredibly difficult to represent in the game since they concerned an invisible abstract concept. It was something I'd never seen done in a game before. So, I came up with the Life Stream.
"This was an idea that planets have the same kinds of life systems as people's blood or nerve network. It allowed us to more clearly examine the issues we wanted to. Sakaguchi-san's main ideas for FFVII and the world he imagined for the game (the creatures, etc.) were very closely integrated into the "Final Fantasy" movie. FFVII and "Final Fantasy" started at the same time in their development process and they share nearly identical roots. I may have to play/watch both again and compare all their common elements."
Although lengthy FMV, random battles and an arcane combat system alienated some gamers—especially in the west where anecdotal evidence suggests it became the most returned game history—the combination proved the winning formula for thousands who had never sampled such fare before. Boosting weapons and skills with Materia, summoning devastating guardians, scouring the planet's highest peaks and deepest oceans for secret items and raising and training Chocobo gave both fresh and old RPGers an inconceivably large universe to explore and revel in. It also provided us with a legendary videogame moment.
Death of a Friend
Easily the most infamous and memorable character in FFVII was neither the main lead nor the central antagonist, although both Cloud and Sephiroth are premier examples of excellent design and characterisation, but rather a flower seller who appears a little more than a third of the game.
Tetsuya Nomura, character designer, conceived both the characters of Sephiroth and Aerith. "The main issues of contention for fans worldwide are still Aerith's death and the ending sequence with Sephiroth. With the plot I wanted people to feel something intense, to understand something. Back at the time we were designing the game I was frustrated with the perennial dramatic cliché where the protagonist loves someone very much and so has to sacrifice himself and die in a dramatic fashion in order to express that love. We found this was the case in both games and movies, both eastern and western. But I wanted to say something different, something realistic. I mean is it right to set such an example to people?"
Kitase-san is adamant that cultural art puts too high a value on the dramatically meaningful death, "In the real world things are very different. You just need to look around you. Nobody wants to die that way. People die of disease and accident. Death comes suddenly and there is no notion of good or bad. It leaves, not a dramatic feeling but great emptiness. When you lose someone you loved very much you feel this big empty space and think, 'If I had known this was coming I would have done things differently.' These are the feelings I wanted to arouse in the players with Aerith's death relatively early in the game. Feelings of reality and not Hollywood."
At the time of release the internet was awash with rumours that it was possible to resurrect Aerith. Edge wonders if this was ever the developers' intention? "The world was expecting us to bring her back to life, as this is the classic convention. But we did not. We had decided this from the beginning. There was a lot of reaction from Japanese users. Some of them were very sad about it while others were angry. We even received a lengthy petition addressed to our scenario writer asking for Aerith's revival. But there are many meanings in Aerith's death and that could never happen.
Final Fantasy VII is arguably one of the most significant games of all time. Not simply because it was so well conceived and executed, but mainly because of its wider significance to Sony. In Japan, history dictates that hardware can not succeed without a best-selling RPG franchise. With Final Fantasy VII Squaresoft secured its position as king of the adventure tale and won Sony an army of fans both in Japan and the west.
The continued pressure Square receives to do a remake of the title is evidence of the game's continued popularity. Edge gently pursues the rumours. "If I were to redo the game onto today's hardware I would like to make the characters more realistic, I mean like FFX for instance. I think I would try include full voice support but I would definitely keep very same plot and scenario. I know that other members of the team are eager to do the update, but, currently I have no plans. Cloud and Aerith have appeared in other titles (Final Fantasy Tactics, Kingdom Hearts) so it is possible FFVII character will appear in a future title but there is much discussion to be had first."
Whether a new generation of videogamers get to experience this RPG in next-gen clothing is almost irrelevant. While few would go back to experience this epic again, it is one of those rare games that cast an emotional spell over legions of players. For that reason it will always remain the stuff of legend.